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So What Exactly Is the Deal with Russia?

Are Putin's clones really about to take over the world?

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Ilya Matveev is a member of the Russian Socialist Movement and lecturer of Political Science at Moscow State University. I met him at a left-leaning conference called Dialogue of the Squares, which was held in Bucharest last May and attracted activists from Spain, Ukraine, Russia, Bosnia and Romania. During a break, Ilya and I got to talking about the propaganda war that seems to be going on between Russia and the United States.


I think this talk is now more relevant than ever, what with the recent horrors of the flight MH17 crash. It might seem needless to say, but it is important to keep reminding ourselves that there are no bad people – just uneducated masses and crappy leaders.

VICE: There is a lot of propaganda coming from both the US and Russia about the war in Ukraine. What's the worst piece of propaganda you've come across lately?
Ilya Matveev: I hear a lot of crap, misinformation and exaggerations but I pay them no mind. There was this one piece on the Huffington Post however, written by an elderly English professor, on how humanities help us understand the world; He said that Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy help us understand Russia and then went off the wagon badly by saying that Putin is irrational and can't understand the simple Western ideals of fairness and reason, because of traditional Russian literature.

It's not exactly propaganda but it’s part of that colonialist discourse which says that Russians can't understand anything good or logical. There is a propaganda war but I think it is superficial when compared to the colonialist stereotypes in both countries.

What's the stupidest bit of Russian propaganda you've heard?
There was a serious debate on Russian TV, about whether the reason for the Maidan protests was that Ukrainian women are sexually frustrated and that made them go berserk.

A silly propaganda poster.


What's the biggest lie you've heard about Putin in Western media?
I don't know if you can call it a lie, but I noticed that a lot of Western media outlets speculate on his sex life – especially after his divorce, when he made some bad joke about marrying off his ex-wife and everyone took it seriously. How about the biggest lie about him in Russian media?
There is this entire conspiracy theory that Putin uses body doubles, at least four of them, so nobody knows if there is a real Vladimir Putin because each double has different ears. It's a stupid internet conspiracy that actually shows up in the news. It is related to something we Russians call "Samavanceslov" or "The Time of Troubles" – a period after Communism, when people showed up every day claiming they were secret heirs to the royal Romanov family.

Wow, like in Anastasia. So how do you see Putin?
He is very strange. Nobody knows much about him and it's hard to tell if he has a political vision or not. It's interesting that until the Ukraine conflict, many right-wing conservatives from Europe admired him and considered him an informal international leader of conservatism. There were even articles about an International Conservative meet with him in the middle.

Still, he says he's a liberal. A lot of leftist European leaders consider him an alternative to neo-liberalism and there are even some Russian socialists we call Putinists, who also consider him a leader of their movement. On May Day he hangs out with Union Leaders, who are part of the state apparatus in Russia, and he says that the fall of the USSR was the worst mistake in history. So, is he a conservative, a liberal or a socialist? Nobody knows.


Why do you think he does this?
He is a post-modern president. He plays a populist game, so when he takes decisive, violent decisions, nobody understands what he wants. For example, in one recent speech he said: “Nationalism is rearing its ugly head in Europe,” but he was the one who used nationalists as supervisors for the vote in Crimea.

We keep seeing these PR images of him shirtless, killing bears and tigers, rescuing crying girls.
There is a lot of irony in those images. Because there are no news stories about his ideas or his plans, the news show him hunting or collecting ancient amphorae from the bottom of the sea. But I don't think many people take these seriously.

Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. A patriarch is like a pope for an Orthodox Christian country. Photo via Wikipedia

I read that the Russian Orthodox Church also supports Putin's war campaigns.
Yes, there's this new wave of aggressive pro-war propaganda among the clerics and the government is using this to their advantage. A pro-Putin MP who figured this out actually tried to put the Church in the Constitution, and transform us from a secular state into an Orthodox one. The paradox is that Russia is not a religious country. After our Soviet heritage, most people do seem to believe in something, but the presence in church is minimum.

Does your Patriarch get involved in Putin's political campaigns?
Yes, our Patriarch Kirill always says: “We should give Caesar what is Caesar's and give God what is God's,” but he still gets involved in politics. A lot of clerics openly support Putin. We have a head priest of the armed forces who has been ultra-conservative and ultra-reactionary ever since the conflict started.


In the Romanian media there is a lot of talk about how Bulgarians and Serbs are Russian allies, and how Romania is surrounded by enemies. What does the Russian media say about this?
Romania and all those other countries really aren't part of the every-day propaganda in Russia – not even on official government statements. Russia has always been allied with Serbia, but I don't hear a lot of talk about a Pan-Slavic union or about Romania.

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Many people are comparing what happened in Georgia to what's happening these days in Ukraine and they say it's part of Putin's master plan.
He isn't capable of having a master plan. In Georgia he simply reacted swiftly. Putin wasn't planning on invading anything, he just seized the moment when Georgians attacked Osetia and asked NATO for help.

Call me a cynic but I think what Russia is doing in Ukraine is much more abusive than what happened in Georgia, because the former President, Saakasvili, had no evidence when he went on a military expedition against Osetia. But in Ukraine, you can see Russia's imperialistic tactic to profit from our neighbours turmoil to grab some land.

How is the NATO missile shield viewed in Russia?
NATO and the shield have always been shown as threats by the Russian media. I am against any form of imperialism, so I am against NATO, but that does not mean I support Putin.

Actually, I have an issue with the collaboration between Putin and NATO. Few people know that he allowed them to build transit bases for the NATO troops which were heading towards Afghanistan right in the middle of Russia, in Ulyanovsk. And he's still the one militating against “Americanism”.


Is Obama also regarded a threat?
The media here makes fun of what Russians perceive to be weakness on his part. I don't support him because I think he has an unprogressive centralisation policy and weak external politics, but I think it's stupid to make fun of him, as he is a man with a political and strategical culture – unlike Putin. The Americans have already won any conflict with us, and any Russian aggression towards NATO is viewed by rational citizens as nothing but a bluff.

Were the Olympics in Sochi viewed as rationally as this?
No, that was a great populist success – especially since Russia got most of the medals. It's not OK to have an anti-Olympics attitude here. I think that the Olympic Games are an insult when you think about the state roads and hospitals are in.

Hundreds of thousands of protesters fill Kiev's Independence Square in December 2013. Photo by Konstantin Chernichkin

Do you think that the Olympics were used to incite nationalistic spirit in the conflict with Ukraine?
Yes, the two events are tied together and there was a surge in nationalism after that. But it is hard to tell what the majority of Russians really think, as most don't protest and they don't vote, because the voter turnout is always low. They just sit at home and watch TV – they don't have a voice.

But the situation is different between Russia and the Ukraine. On Maidan the nationalists beat up any left-wing protester, and in Russia right-wing protesters have been marginalised from all movements. The March protests in Russia, where there were tens of thousands of people in the streets of Moscow, were liberal and that is a good thing. In Russia, right-wing nationalism belongs to the government.

**I noticed that when Ukraine, the EU, or NATO are mentioned **on Russia Today,, they always come with the word "fascist".
Yes, this is a new propaganda trend, where they exaggerate the number of fascists on Maidan and say that they were supported by NATO. At some point the people on Maidan actually wrote on the whole square “Hey, Russians, there are no fascists here!”, which was not 100 percent true.

How do you think this cold conflict will end?
There will probably be prolonged instability in the Ukraine and Putin will do what he can to keep it that way. Unfortunately, Putin had a lot of help from the new Ukrainian government, which took a lot of measures that pissed off the ethnic Russians – like naming members of the Svoboda party in government. Even though they are not fascists, they are at the far right and have neo-nazi attitudes. That made them a perfect instrument for the Russian propaganda.

In Russia, the economy will keep deteriorating. Oil prices have gone up from ten dollars per barrel in the 1990s to over $100 nowadays. The economic model of Russian capitalism does not imply a modernisation of industry, just failed privatisations of state owned businesses and overtaxing people and businesses for rent.